Tag Archives: pacific ocean

The Pacific Ocean has become so acidic it’s dissolving crab shells

Dungeness crabs can be purple to grayish-brown, with cream-colored undersides. NPS Photo.

As concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide continue to rise steeply so will the oceans’ acidity, as some of the gas is absorbed by the water. Researchers at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have now found that the acidity around the Pacific Ocean coast is so high that it’s eating away the shells of young Dungeness crabs.

“If the crabs are affected already, we really need to make sure we start to pay attention to various components of the food chain before it is too late,” said Nina Bednarsek, the lead author of the new study.

No one expected to see this kind of threat to Dungeness carbs escalating so quickly, a situation which is now seen as a warning for the future of seafood and the health of marine life in general. If crabs are already severely affected, other animals in the food chain are likely feeling the heat and lowered pH as well.

Dungeness crabs (Cancer magister) occur throughout the coast of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Their contribution to the fishing industry is estimated at $200 million annually.

However, researchers were stunned to find that acidification in the waters where the crabs swim is high enough to chip away at their shells. Since 2016, NOAA researchers have been collecting samples using research boats to study the phenomenon.

Ocean acidification occurs when the pH of ocean water drops due to the absorption of CO2 over a long period, which triggers a chain of chemical reactions. Ultimately, the CO2 causes an increase in hydrogen ions which overbear carbonate ions. Like corals and other crustaceans, Dungeness crabs rely on carbonate ions to grow thick shells. Without enough carbonate, crabs, oysters, and clams cannot build their shells properly and thus become more vulnerable to predation.

Since the industrial revolution, the average pH in the world’s oceans has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1, marking a 26% increase in acidity.

The Dungeness crab larvae samples collected by the NOAA researchers included shells with clear signs of scarring and abnormal ridging, which impair the crab’s ability to swim and stay buoyant. Many of the crabs with damaged shells were also smaller than they should have been, a mark of development delays. Lower pH levels also seem to have destabilized the crab larvae’s mechanoreceptors, causing some to risk the loss of important sensory and behavioral functions.

Previously, researchers showed that ocean acidification is impacting the population numbers of West Coast pteropods. These free-swimming snails are on top of the menu for Dungeness crabs, suggesting that the entire marine food chain is being significantly affected.

This sort of outcome is not surprising. What was unexpected, however, was seeing the damage happening now rather than years from now.

Next, scientists would like to conduct more research in order to make new predictions about how Dungeness crabs and other marine life will cope with rising ocean acidity in the future.

The study was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment and funded by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A “blob” of hot water killed a million seabirds in the Pacific, researchers found

Back in 2015, an estimated one million seabirds died along the west coast of North America during a marine heatwave, leaving researchers with open questions over what happened. Now, they might have figured out what went wrong.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

About 62.000 dead or dying common murres, a medium-sized seabird similar to a penguin, were found on the shore from California to Alaska – having died of starvation. Researchers estimated a death toll of one million, extrapolating from the number of birds that usually wash ashore.

This wasn’t the first time that murres were found dead, usually coinciding with extraordinary warmer temperatures, but the scope was shocking. Never before was such a massive die-off of seabirds recorded in history, according to the University of Washington, which partially funded the study published in PLOS One.

“The magnitude and scale of this failure have no precedent,” lead researcher John Piatt, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said in the statement. “It was astonishing and alarming, and a red-flag warning about the tremendous impact sustained ocean warming can have on the marine ecosystem.”

Researchers analyzed vast amounts of data, including surveys of birds from the government and rehabilitation centers, sea surface temperatures, and reports from fisheries. This helped to determine how the record heatwave led to the die-off of seabirds.

A mass of warm water, colloquially known as “the blob,” began forming in the Gulf of Alaska in 2013, the study noted. By April 2015 it was 1.300 miles wide and 328 feet deep, affecting the murres in several ways.

The warmer water of the ocean led to the fish eaten by the murres to go deeper to colder waters, altering their body conditions. At the same time, competition for food increased, as the appetite of species of predator fish that eat the same as murres increased.

“As the bottom of the ecosystem was shifting in not good ways, the top of the ecosystem was demanding a lot more food,” study co-author Julia Parrish told the LA Times. Those conditions led to “intense competition for absolutely not enough food, which is what killed them.”

Despite the die-off seen a few years back, murres are not facing extinction, researchers said. Nevertheless, it will take years for the populations affected to go back to their former numbers. The phenomenon experienced by the murres it’s anticipating what could come in a warmer world, they said.

This “demonstrates that a warmer ocean world is a very different environment and a very different coastal ecosystem for many marine species,” said Parrish in a statement. “Seabirds, as highly visible members of that system, are bellwethers of that change.”

Frighting satellite imagery of East Island site before and after the hurricane hit. Credit: Chip Fletcher.

Powerful hurricane wipes out tiny Hawaiian island off the map

East Island looking serene and welcoming. A cat-3 hurricane destroyed most of it. Credit: YouTube.

East Island looking serene and welcoming. A cat-3 hurricane destroyed most of it. Credit: YouTube.

A hurricane in the eastern Pacific obliterated an 11-acre island in the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands. East Island, as it used to be called, was the second largest island in French Frigate Shoals ― an atoll some 550 miles northwest of Honolulu. The findings suggest that many more low-lying sand islands will disappear due to climate change which is known to intensify the frequency and severity of storms.

“I uttered a swear word. I had a ‘holy cow!’ moment, somewhat in disbelief that it had disappeared,” said Chip Fletcher, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Hawaii.

The remote gravel and sand island sat on top of a coral reef, which made it easy picking for a storm surge from the Cat-3 Hurricane Walaka. The hurricane caused havoc throughout the northwestern Hawaiian Islands this month.

East Island used to be home to the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the threatened Hawaiian green sea turtle, and several species of seabirds. Researchers who were on the island studying these species were forced to evacuate — and they were smart to do so before the storm unleashed its full fury. Just take a look at this satellite before and after of East Island.

Frighting satellite imagery of East Island site before and after the hurricane hit. Credit: Chip Fletcher.

Frighting satellite imagery of East Island site before and after the hurricane hit. Credit: Chip Fletcher.

The drone video below shows a calm and inviting East Island up close and personal.

We don’t yet what the loss of East Island means for threatened species such as the monk seal or green sea turtle, but the impact is likely significant. Historically, East Island has been the nesting site for half of the Hawaiian green sea turtle population. Fortunately, all nesting females had left by the time Walaka hit. However, much of this year’s hatchlings have been lost.

“These small, sandy islets are going to really struggle to persist” in a warming world with rising seas, Charles Littnan, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s protected species division, told the Huffington Post. “This event is confronting us with what the future could look like.”

Rising sea levels and more frequent storms such as the one that hit East Islands are huge threats to atolls all over the world. In 2016, researchers found that five islands in the Solomon Islands had been lost to rising seas and erosion, a direct result of climate change in the Pacific. More will likely follow.

Nowhere is safe from mankind — high levels of pollution found even in the deepest oceans

Researchers report ‘extraordinary’ levels of pollution in deep trenches as chemicals banned all the way in the 70s still plague the oceans.

This container of Spam rests at 4,947 meters on the slopes of a canyon leading to the Sirena Deep in the Mariana trench. Photograph: Noaa Office of Ocean Exploration

A team led by Dr Alan Jamieson at the University of Newcastle sampled levels of pollutants in the fatty tissue of amphipods, a type of crustacean. Amphipods are crustaceans with no carapace and generally with laterally compressed bodies. They inhabit freshwater as well as saltwater, but Jamieson only focused on the amphipods inhabiting the deep parts of the Pacific Ocean, mostly around the Mariana Trench. The animals were taken from a depth of up to 10 km and across a distance of over 10 km.

Samples revealed that these small crustaceans were contaminated by pollution with incredibly high pollution levels — 50 times higher than crabs living in heavily polluted Chinese rivers.

“We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth,” said Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University in the UK, who led the research.

“The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants really brings home the long-term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet,” he said.

Several contaminants were found, most notably polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). They were once widely deployed as dielectric and coolant fluids in electrical appliances, carbonless copy paper and in heat transfer fluids. They’re still used today due to their longevity, though much less than in previous decades. But their longevity is not always a good thing. Because of PCBs’ environmental toxicity and classification as a persistent organic pollutant, PCB production was banned by the United States Congress in 1979 and by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001. These are long-lived pollutants and they seem to have made their way to all corners of the Earth.

It wasn’t completely unexpected to find such pollutants in the deeper parts of the ocean because decaying animals naturally go down — and when they go down, there’s no way for them to get back up again. The surprise was in the quantities they found, which were way, way higher than expected.

“The very bottom of the deep trenches like the Mariana are inhabited by incredibly efficient scavenging animals, like the 2cm-long amphipods we sampled, so any little bit of organic material that falls down, these guys turn up in huge numbers and devour it,” said Jamieson. “When it gets down into the trenches, there is nowhere else for it to go. The surprise was just how high the levels were – the contamination in the animals was sky high.”

Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly how this pollution affects ecosystems. Katherine Dafforn from the University of New South Wales in Australia, who was not involved in the study, told BBC that while the study “provided clear evidence that the deep ocean, rather than being remote, is highly connected to surface waters and has been exposed to significant concentrations of human-made pollutants,” the “toxic effects of these pollutants and their potential to biomagnify up the food chain still need to be tested.”

Journal Reference: Alan J. Jamieson, Tamas Malkocs, Stuart B. Piertney, Toyonobu Fujii & Zulin Zhang — Bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants in the deepest ocean fauna.

El Nino, which is Spanish for "the little boy" or "the Christ child," refers to a type of weather pattern which occurs in some years and usually peaks during the winter months of the northern hemisphere.

El Niño shaping up in the Pacific: might be strongest since 1950

According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), there’s now a mature El Niño present in the Pacific Ocean. As is the case with such events, the biggest sign of an El Niño shaping up is rising surface water temperatures. Right now, the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean waters are likely to exceed 2° Celsius above average, which suggests this could be one of the strongest since 1950, placing it along similar events like 1972-73, 1982-83 or 1997-98.

What causes El Niño

El Nino, which is Spanish for "the little boy" or "the Christ child," refers to a type of weather pattern which occurs in some years and usually peaks during the winter months of the northern hemisphere.

El Nino, which is Spanish for “the little boy” or “the Christ child,” refers to a type of weather pattern which occurs in some years and usually peaks during the winter months of the northern hemisphere.

Climate scientists are always on the lookout for an El Niño since the phenomenon influences  how high global temperatures will rise this year, how severe a drought could afflict Australia and Asia, and whether or not rain-starved California will get the precipitation it desperately needs. Most of us, however, know El Niño as a doom bringer leaving floods, droughts, tropical storms and blizzards in its wake. The severity of such an event, of course, depends on where you live. India, Australia and Indonesia are historically hardest hit.

In the absence of an El Niño warm currents flow from east to west, due to the planet’s spin around its axis. In time, winds graze the water absorbing some of the heat and exchanging it further east, in Australia and Asia. At some point, the water in the east gets hot enough that it unbalances the system. As the heat system tries to reach an equilibrium,  warm water starts flowing in reverse from east to west, dragging precipitation with it. As a consequence, some regions of the world will receive excess rain and storms, while others will see little of it.

The event happens every five to eight years, and authorities aren’t exactly looking up for it. This year it’s back.

Once surface water temperatures exceed 1° Celsius above average, the so-called  El Niño threshold is reached. In August  surface temperatures have ranged between +1.3° and +2.0° Celsius which suggests this current   El Niño is already pretty strong. Apart from this, other telltale signs have been identified: patterns of cloudiness and rainfall near and east of the international dateline and weakening of tradewings from the west to east-central Pacific.

This year’s El Niño could be very strong

Here’s a summary of the WMO report:

  • As of August 2015, both the ocean and atmosphere over the tropical Pacific exhibit behaviour indicative of a strong El Niño;
  • A majority of the models surveyed and expert opinion suggest the 2015-16 El Niño will strengthen further during the second half of 2015;
  • The peak strength of this El Niño, expected sometime during October 2015 to January 2016, could potentially place it among the four strongest El Niño events since 1950.
  • Impacts from this El Niño are already evident in some regions and will be more apparent for at least the next 4-8 months;
  • El Niño events typically decline and then dissipate during the first and second quarters of the year following their formation. Note that impacts in some regions are still expected during the dissipation phase.

Another model, this time made by researchers at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center suggests  there is a greater than 90% chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere winter 2015-16, and around an 85% chance it will last into early spring 2016. Across the contiguous United States, temperature and precipitation impacts associated with El Niño are expected to remain minimal during the remainder of the Northern Hemisphere summer and increase into the late fall and winter. El Niño will likely contribute to a below normal Atlantic hurricane season, and to above-normal hurricane seasons in both the central and eastern Pacific hurricane basins. Already, the Western Pacific has seen 5 strong typhoons this year.

Besides the weather, this prince of chaos is also changing fish migratory patterns driving away the coldwater fish – a backbone of the fishing industry in South America. There are of course some upsides to El Niño. For instance, Uruguay gets to have better agricultural conditions. For the most part, though, you don’t want it around.

Who’s most vulnerable

el-nino

The worst El Niño happened in 1997, killing 23,000 people and $45 billion in damage. On the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI) which measures how warm surface waters in the Pacific are (zero is average, positive is warming, negative is cooling), the 1997 event was rated with a 2.3 figure. Right now, the 2015-2016 El Niño event is rated with 1.0 on the ONI scale, however this figure has been constantly rising in the past four months. Models performed by WMO predict it should climb above 2.0 and quite possibly become the strongest since 1950 when such record keeping began.

As mentioned in a previous article in which I explained what drives global warming “hiatus”, the  El Niño also influences climate. At the time, 1998 became the warmest year on record. However, 2014 was the warmest year on record without any El Niño event. Expect 2016 to be very, very hot – another record.

East coast snow

A ‘warm blob’ in the Pacific is linked to California’s drought and East Coast snow storms

Strange weather in the East Coast and California’s worst drought in history have been linked to a peculiar warm mass of water out in the Pacific Ocean. A new study published in the Geophysical Research Letters explain its origins and how its warm waters also warmed surface temperatures out in the coast, and displaced marine life, a major concern at the moment. Worth noting that research thus far suggests that ‘warm blob’, as it’s been dubbed, has been primarily attributed to natural variability, and not global warming.

East coast snow

man walks past Swiss artist Peter Regli Reality Hacking No. 320 ‘Snow Monsters 2015’ during a winter storm in New York
Picture: EPA/JASON SZENES

In the fall of 2013, scientists first noticed a large mass of water stretching some 1,000 miles in all directions in the Pacific Ocean didn’t cool by as much as it should during the winter. By spring 2014, it was way warmer for that time of year or  about 1 to 4 degrees Celsius above normal. Some ten months later, the blob now lies 1,000 miles offshore from Mexico up through Alaska, still warm with 2 degrees Celsius above normal.

Nick Bond, a climate scientist at the UW-based Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, was part of the team that explored the origins of the strange body of water. He also coined the term ‘blob’. His findings suggest the blob can be tracked down to a high-pressure ridge that caused a calmer ocean during the past two winters, so what we’re seeing in fact today is the result of less cooling during winter and not more warming during spring, despite there’s a net warming effect.

Image: NOAA

Image: NOAA

The warm blob disrupted marine life in the region, meddling with the food web according to sightings of fish stocks in unusual places. This may be why hungry seals are washing out on Californian beaches in such large numbers – those who couldn’t follow the fish at least. It’s influence also extends inland, as winds carry warm air to heat the surface of the West Coast, causing more heat and less snow, making it an important factor accounting for the drought. According to models, the blob should fade this year.

The blob may also play a role, albeit minor, in the last two bone chilling winters on the East Coast. Dennis Hartmann, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences, published a paper in the same journal in which he details his investigation of the  Pacific Ocean’s influence over   the cold 2013-14 winter in the central and eastern United States. His work suggests a decadal-scale pattern in the tropical Pacific Ocean linked with changes in the North Pacific, called the North Pacific mode,  sent atmospheric waves snaking along the globe to bring warm and dry air to the West Coast and very cold, wet air to the central and eastern states. It’s also what caused the blob.

“Lately this mode seems to have emerged as second to the El Niño Southern Oscillation in terms of driving the long-term variability, especially over North America,” Hartmann said.

Since the 1980s this pattern has intensified, becoming second only to El Niño in its influence on global weather patterns.

“It’s an interesting question if that’s just natural variability happening or if there’s something changing about how the Pacific Ocean decadal variability behaves,” Hartmann said. “I don’t think we know the answer. Maybe it will go away quickly and we won’t talk about it anymore, but if it persists for a third year, then we’ll know something really unusual is going on.”

“This is a taste of what the ocean will be like in future decades,” Bond said. “It wasn’t caused by global warming, but it’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming.”

 

Each Wave Glider will collect valuable data about the status of the Pacific Ocean's current health.

Unmanned robots embark on epic voyage across the Pacific Ocean

Each Wave Glider will collect valuable data about the status of the Pacific Ocean's current health.

Each Wave Glider will collect valuable data about the status of the Pacific Ocean's current health.

This weekend four unmanned robot vehicles set out to cross the Pacific Ocean, for the longest voyage of this kind so far attempted. During their 300 days trek,  the Wave Glider crafts will gather immense data regarding composition and quality of sea water, which will provide researchers with invaluable data regarding the current status of the ocean’s health.

The robots, designed by Liquid Robotics, were launched from the St Francis Yacht Club on the edge of San Francisco harbour on 17 November. Initially, the four crafts will travel together until they reach Hawaii, after which they’ll split into two pairs – one will cross the ocean towards Australia, while the other  head to Japan to support a dive on the Mariana Trench (deepest part of the ocean). In total, 3,000 nautical miles (66,000km) will be covered, while curious viewers can keep up to date with the robots’ live progress on Google Earth.

“Most of the ocean remains unexplored with less than 10 percent of it mapped out. This expedition creates an opportunity for students, marine researchers, and aspiring oceanographers to follow these brave Liquid Robotics ocean robots as they cross the Pacific virtually through the Ocean Showcase on the Google Earth website,” says Jenifer Austin Foulkes, Ocean in Google Earth manager.

Surprisingly, the construction of the robots seems quite fragile. Made out of two parts, the upper half of the Wage Glider is shaped like a stunted surfboard and it is attached by a cable to a lower part fitted with a series of fins and a keel. Around 2.25 million data points will be gathered during the voyage as the unmanned crafts will pass for never before surveyed waters via sensors. To power the sensors, a solar panel was installed on the upper part of the craft, in contact with the surface. For me, it’s quite remarkable how the Wave Glider will be able to withstand the torrents and vicious waves of the Pacific, but obviously the engineers who made them have to know what they’re doing.

“At Virgin Oceanic, our mission is taking the next step in human exploration to the last frontier – the very bottom of our seas. I will be piloting to the bottom of the Mariana Trench to explore the deepest point of the Pacific Ocean,” says Chris Welsh, Virgin Oceanic co-founder and pilot.

“Wave Gliders are one of the most promising solutions for major, low cost, long-range ocean exploration. I look forward to seeing the results as their Wave Gliders cross over the Mariana Trench, which is our first major dive location.”

Renowned Geophysicist explains Japan tsunami

If you’re looking for an easy to understand scientific explanation about the formation of the devastating quake and tsunami that devastated Japan this Friday, you’d better read Dr. John Ebel‘s theory from below, Professor of geophysics and director of Weston Observatory of Boston College.

“We had an earthquake caused by the Pacific Ocean plate sliding under the Asian plate and as it slides under the Asian plate is pushed up…any time you move the ocean floor up or down you induce a tsunami in the ocean. Tsunamis travel fast when the ocean is deep they travel slowly when the ocean is shallow. When the ocean is deep, the wave spreads out so you have maybe a foot high wave that’s spread out hundreds of miles and it’s traveling at literally 500 miles an hour.”

Dr. Ebel says at those speeds land masses close to the epicenter like the Japanese island of Honshu had only minutes to prepare where as Hawaii and the west coast had hours. “When you get to islands like Hawaii which are thousands of miles away you have hours and hours of warning…they had about 6 or 8 hours of warning.”

Just like a single rain drop spreads across a pond a tsunami circumnavigates the globe. “Tide gages for instance in Mobile Bay and on the Gulf coast will register a very small recording probably tonight or early tomorrow morning from this tsunami. It will spread through all the ocean basins.”

On the same wavelength, Dr. Ebel says that it’s very possible strong aftershocks could be experienced within the next few days or weeks. Some could even be large enough that another small tsunami is generated…